Russians are sad for Americans, not America

By Patrick Cockburn
Friday 04 April 2014 05:12

At 5 o'clock on the morning of 13 September two years ago, the roar of an explosion woke Nina Tinina in her flat at 6 Kashirskoye Shosse in Moscow.

"We could not see much because of the smoke," she recalls. "All our windows were smashed. We went outside half-dressed and saw the neighbouring apartment block was just a heap of ruins. We kept shouting, 'Is anybody alive in there?'. But we heard nothing."

The suicide plane attacks in New York and Washington coincided almost to the day with the anniversary of the explosion that ripped apart the eight-storey block in this working-class district. It killed 124 people. It was the worst of a series of bomb attacks that killed some 300 civilians in the capital and the provincial city of Volgadonsk.

The bombs had a decisive impact on Russian political history. Anger against the Chechens, who were blamed, enabled Vladimir Putin, a newly appointed and wholly obscure Prime Minister, to invade Chechnya, and six months later easily win an election for the presidency.

A simple metal memorial, heaped around with flowers and pictures of the dead, marks the spot where the apartment block once stood. A small, elderly woman with a black headscarf was sobbing in front of the memorial. She showed us the page of an old newspaper with photos of her son, his wife and her granddaughter who had all been killed by the bomb. Only two people who were inside the building survived.

I had been to Kashirskoye Shosse last year, just before the presidential election in which Mr Putin triumphed, to ask people who they were voting for and who they thought had planted the bomb. Only one out of 10 was certain it was the Chechens. "It was only at the beginning that we thought it was the Chechens," said a woman who worked in a kindergarten damaged by the blast. "Now we think it was people in the Kremlin who wanted to stay in power."

To this day, nobody knows the truth and nobody seems that interested in finding out. When I asked people in Kashirskoye Shosse what they thought about the attacks in the US, all expressed sympathy for the victims. Earlier, all flags in Russia had been lowered to half-mast. Television and radio stations halted broadcasts for a minute's silence.

A television poll revealed, however, that 40 per cent of Russians said they felt "sorry for individual Americans but not for America". A friend teaching at a university in Moscow was surprised to discover that most of his students, many of whom had studied in the US, said they felt sorry for the victims of the bombings, but added that it was bound to happen "because of international resentment at American power".

* * *

Russians are astonished by the US intelligence failure that allowed as many as 50 people to plot and train for their attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon for 18 months. But the efforts of the US consulate in Peshawar, in the north-west province of Pakistan on the Afghan border, to trace and capture Osama bin Laden suggest an operation of extraordinary amateurism. In a bid to find him, the consulate last year distributed free matchboxes with a picture of Mr bin Laden on the front and a message in Urdu offering $500,000 for information leading to his capture. It also promised confidentiality and asylum in the US for anybody who supplied the information.

The chances of the matchbox ploy producing results was never high and may have been further reduced by a serious misprint: the consulate had intended to offer potential informants $5m but the printer accidentally omitted a zero, reducing the reward by a factor of ten.

At the same time as the matchboxes were distributed, shopkeepers in Peshawar were surprised to discover that hundreds of 100-rupee notes – written in the Pashto and Dari languages – were also in circulation, overprinted with a message offering a reward for bin Laden. The US consulate denies having distributed the notes.

* * *

Those in charge of military training exercises often have difficulty in devising likely scenarios for a future conflict. But the annual manoeuvres arranged by the Russian General Headquarters in the past few weeks pitted an unlikely set of antagonists against each other. The scenario envisaged that Russia is being invaded by Nato in the West acting in a military alliance with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The latter supposedly strikes at Russia's allies in Central Asia.

At the root of this absurdity lies a number of problems. All Russia's allies, all former parts of the Soviet Union, face different potential enemies. For instance, Armenia does not feel much threatened by Nato or the Taliban, but is deeply suspicious of neighbouring Azerbaijan. The Russian army is still equipped to fight the West and not more likely battles in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, Moscow's faithful ally, had another priority. During the manoeuvres he took personal charge of the Belarusian armed forces in the knowledge that within the week the electors would be going to the polls in a presidential election. Mr Lukashenko even had a special uniform of Ruritanian exuberance designed for himself, his appearance causing some quiet mirth in his own officer corps. "He looked like a clown who had sprouted feathers," said one opposition journalist, adding that it was the only funny moment in the whole dismal election campaign.

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